Friday, 19 December 2008

This year's Christmas quiz.

Better late than never ...

This year's Ladybird Books Christmas Quiz is here.
Click the white arrow in the green box below. (Below, not the one to the side). Watch the video. Which two featured books are intruders and shouldn't be in the montage?.

One should be fairly easy to spot - the other a bit harder. The first one to email me - or post the correct answer as a comment below - wins the glory of being this year's Wise Robin Christmas Ladybod.

Good luck and Happy Christmas
Two more broadsheets have printed full obituaries to Douglas Keen this week. Here are the online versions:

The Times

The Independent

Following The Guardian obit, readers wrote letters for days afterwards saying why Ladybird had been important for them too. This is a flavour of what they wrote.

It was not just children for whom Ladybird Books opened up the world of learning (Douglas Keen obituary, November 29). As an IT training officer in the early 70s, I used to recommend the book on computers to trainee programmers as the clearest guide to the basics of computing. They usually found it extremely useful.
Charlie Withall

Required reading on our design course at the London College of Printing was the Ladybird Book of Printing Processes (Letters, December 9). Presumably so the typesetters and machine minders could pull the wool only so far over our eyes.
James Alexander

Some years ago I put the excellent Ladybird Book of Spelling and Grammar on the reading list for my first-year journalism students. I was quietly advised to remove it before the Daily Mail found out.
Bernard Pratt
Cheadle, Cheshire

Studying for my history A-level as a strapping 18-year-old in 1970, I used to receive what could be described at best as quizzical looks from my local librarian every two weeks as I repeatedly withdrew the Ladybird Book of Napoleon Bonaparte (Letters, December 1). I have to this day not seen a better overview of the great man. It served me well too!
Bob Buntine

As a Methodist minister, I have regularly recommended, and frequently given, the Ladybird book on John Wesley to people asking about the origins of Methodism (Letters, December 5).
Kip Bennett
Greenford, Middlesex

Douglas Keen's younger daughter Caroline contributed the following touching letter:

My father Douglas Keen was an avid Guardian reader until he died aged 95. He would have been honoured by the full-page, full-colour obituary (November 29). But for his beloved Ladybird Books to be praised on the letters page - now that's a true compliment.
Caroline Alexander

Looking up these hyperlinks I came across an online discussion which had taken place last year, but which I'd missed. One commentator suggested that Ladybird Books were overrated and the debate really kicked off. You can follow it here and take up your own position. For me, this contributor summed it up beautifully:

"After all this there's probably an opportunity for someone to do The Ladybird Bird Book of Missing the Point. These amazing little books are continually bandied about in the pursuit of some obscure politically correct agenda, when the truth is that any pre-1975 Ladybird Book [ie the Douglas Keen years] has enormous visual appeal for anyone with an eye for sheer quality of design, illustration and printing. That's it."

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Daily Mail article

Here's the link to the online version of the article on Douglas Keen, which was published in the Daily Mail today.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The Guardian - Douglas Keen

On Saturday, The Guardian - Keen's favourite newspaper - published an obituary. If you missed it, you'll find a version of it here. It was written by Cressida Connolly , who I've never met but who I think must be a Ladybird-loving journalist as she wrote a very thoughtful article on Ladybird Books a few years ago.

I think The Daily Mail will pick up on events in a day or so too.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Last Word

I'm pleased to say that BBC Radio 4 decided to feature a Douglas Keen's life on the programme 'Last Word' this week.

I got a phone call on Wednesday asking if I'd be interviewed for the programme - apparently to give a bit of Ladybird 'context'. The programme featured some archive materials of Douglas Keen himself speaking, and an interview with his daughters and I found their contribution a fascinating insight into those years of Ladybird's greatest success.

I was late to my appointment at Broadcasting House having missed the train and then turning up at the wrong building. By the time I got the right building I was about 20 minutes late, out of breath and a little flustered. This helps to explain why I sound like Mary Poppins on speed. But here's the link to the programme on iPlayer. The Douglas Keen bit is the first feature.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Why the silence?

Douglas Keen was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life. He was:

  • visionary; arguably the main reason for the transformation of Ladybird from jobbing printers to publishing phenomenon
  • the man who led Ladybird to enter the market of non-fiction and educational publishing
  • the force behind the Peter and Jane reading scheme
  • the only person to see Ladybird through from the early post-war days of the Bunnikins books through to the sale of the company to the Longman group in the 1970s
  • an influence on the childhood of several generations of British children
  • socially aware all his life and an advocate for women's rights
  • a much loved family man and loyal friend

Yes, of course I'm an anorak when it comes to Ladybird Books but the achievments of this man transcend niche interest. Why hasn't the press picked up on any of this yet? Does anyone out there have any ideas about what can be done to get a little due tribute to be paid?

I attended his funeral on Thursday. Apparently Douglas Keen did not like funerals but this was a lovely, warm, friendly tribute to his life and his family had set up a corner of his house just as it would have been in the early 1950s with a letter on Wills & Hepworth headed notepaper in the old-fashioned typewriter and his hat on the desk - as you can see in the picture above. I was also shown an amazing prototype book; early on Keen could see a gap in the publishing market for well-produced children's non-fiction aimed at older children and which could be enjoyed by adults. Unable initially to convince the board of W&H to back his vision, he got his mother-in-law (herself trained as an artist) to produce some illustrations and himself wrote the text to create a mock up of the sort of book he had in mind.

The strategy worked; this was the prototype of 'British Birds and their Nests' and the beginning of a new and extraordinarily successful direction for Ladybird.

I hope to write a fuller account of this man and his life as soon as I can. In the meantime, you can read about Keen and 'The Ladybird Years' - part of the tribute spoken by his family at his funeral.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Douglas Keen 1913 - 2008

I learnt today from a family friend that Douglas Keen has died. Douglas Keen was Editorial Director of Ladybird over the period of the 1960s and 70s - the publisher's 'golden age' - and was in no small part responsible for this tremendous success.

It was Keen who pushed for Ladybird to extend into the educational market with factual books, convincing the Board of Wills and Hepworth that this was the right direction to pursue. He was also responsible for promoting the most successful Ladybird series of all time - the Peter and Jane Key Word reading scheme - which is still in print today, over 40 years later.

I never met Douglas Keen, but I wish I had. I would like to pass on my commiserations to his daughters and the rest of his family and friends.

Friday, 7 November 2008

My brand new 'Gallery' of rather old Ladybird Books

New Ladybird Book Gallery

For quite a while now I've been working on a new Ladybird Book gallery, featuring lots of pictures and some commentry, slideshows etc. The old gallery is looking extremely dated and isn't interactive. But this all takes time and so far only the Early Animal Fiction pages on the new bit are worth looking at.

Here's the direct link. Please do take a look; feedback welcome.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Martin Aitchison on 'See Hear'

If you missed the feature on Martin Aitchison on BBC2's "See Hear" yesterday, you've got a week to catch it on the BBC iPlayer.

A great mini-feature on a wonderful man and a very interesting life.

BBC iPlayer: See Hear

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The BBC 2 programme 'See Hear' is planning to make a Ladybird feature "along the lines of a montage of illustrations, photos of children through the ages reading Ladybird books". 'See Hear' is a deaf magazine programme presented entirely in British Sign Language and will include an interview with the wonderful Ladybird artist of the 1960s, 70s and 80s Martin Aitchison, who is himself deaf.

All being well, the programme will be broadcast on Wednesday 15th October, BBC2 at 1pm. If the day job gets in the way of day-time tv, remember the BBC iPlayer and catch up with the show later.

Monday, 8 September 2008

The FT-reading collector

Do you collect Ladybird Books? Do you read the Financial Times? I have been contacted by a journalist who is considering writing a feature on Ladybird Book collecting.

If you have the sort of job typically associated with an FT reader (?) (I think that means business executive, someone who works in finance, a senior professional etc) then please email me via my website. This journlist is interested in profiling one or more LB-collecting FT-style readers. Please note the word 'style' here. Even if you rarely read the paper, the point is that you have the sort of job that means you might!

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Some oddities

Well, what a washout this car-boot season has proved to be! No interesting finds at any of the few that weren't rained off.

I have come across a couple of other oddities in the last couple of months, though.

The first was a roll of paper discovered by someone walking down a Leicestershire street. He fished it out of a skip and realised that it was an uncut page used to produce an old Ladybird Book. In fact there were 3 rolls - from 3 different books. I've always been fascinated by the way the pages were laid out to maximise efficiency in printing - the reason for Ladybird Books success in the early days of paper shortage - so it's great to have an actual uncut page to see for myself. It's an added bonus that one of the pages is from an early Well Loved Tales book, one of my favourites.

The other oddity is from the Key Word Reader series. It's called 'An Outline Picture Pad' and is basically a colouring-in book with line drawings from the original Peter and Jane books but where every picture in the whole pad is the same drawing. Presumably it was to be used in schools and from the teacher's perspective I can imagine it might be of use for those tricky moments at primary school - wet play, last-minute cover for absent staff - but in terms of a contribution to the skills and literacy of our nation in the 1960s it possibly wasn't the work of Ladybird's finest hour - and I doubt if the pads were re-issued with the revision of the books in the 1970s. Unless anyone out there knows different ...

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Your thoughts on reading schemes

Did Peter and Jane do it for you?

Ladybird Books are looking for help from parents and carers.
Please read the following message from Shaleeza on behalf of Ladybird:

*Free Ladybird book !*

Dear Parents/Carers,

My name is Shaleeza and I work for Ladybird publishing.

My apologies for bombarding you with yet another discussion topic, but we really value your opinions and are asking for your assistance.

Here at Ladybird, we are all but too familiar with the difficulties faced when encouraging young children to read. For this reason, we want to bring you the most up to date methods and easy to use resources to help you along. However, to achieve this, we want to know what you want.

I am trying to gather information on our three primary Reading Schemes: Read it Yourself, Key Words & Phonics.

I would be incredibly grateful for your opinions on these schemes, if you have encountered them?

I would also be very interested in how your experience of assisting your child in learning to read was?

In order to collect your responses, please click on the following link and complete a short survey: ...The survey

Mums (or Dads or Grandparents), any feedback you give is greatly appreciated and, just to say thanks, we are offering a free Ladybird book to the first 25 people who respond!

To claim your free book, please e-mail me upon completion of the survey, at with your name, postal address and child's age/sex.

Thank you all in advance!

Shaleeza (on behalf of Ladybird books)

Friday, 11 July 2008

Describing old books

"Tootles the Taxi, in mint condition (no spine, missing page 3)"

Ok, I made that one up. But bookselling is now no longer the province only of the professional. Now that books are bought and freely sold on the internet, you're increasingly likely to come across books that have been mis-described - especially in terms of condition.

Of course, there's always something subjective about this. One person might feel that a dog-eared page or name on the endpaper are faults bearly worth mentioning. To another collector the same characteristics might be seen as serious flaws. And then there are the overall summaries of book condition: Fine, VG, Good, Poor etc - is there a definitive criteria guide?

I would say that this page gets pretty close to my use of these terms:

Describing book condition

Today I also found these video clips which explain some more jargon used for describing flaws in books - not all relevant to Ladybird Books, but even so.

Video clip: Describing book flaws

and part two: Describing book flaws

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A new exhibition

The dates of the next Martin Aitchison exhibition - this summer - have been published. His website states:

"The next exhibition of Martin Aitchison Ladybird artwork will place between July 2008, between 1st - 27th inclusive, at Newby Hall in North Yorkshire.

This will be a Comprehensive exhibition of Martin's Ladybird work spanning 3 decades: the 1960s/70s/80s. The original artwork exhibited will include well-remembered and much loved Peter and Jane 'Keyword Reader' series. There will be over 100 pictures on display which will include pictures from the Sunstart series, Great Artists, Great Composers, Puddle Lane, Science Fiction, Children's Classics and Well Loved Tales (606d).

Most of the artwork on display will be for sale. Prices will start from £100 and will all be displayed in Newby Hall's very attractive gallery."

I missed last year's - so hope to make it this time.

Can anyone help?

Someone has contacted me, trying to find a book. The only lines they recall are:

"Porridge piping hot with cream on,

How they loved it, weren't they glad"

This person believed that these lines came from Piggly Plays Truant - but bought the book and found that they weren't. I normally have a very good hit rate at identifying missing books from the odd line or description of a picture. But these words don't ring a bell. Although they do sound as though they could have come from a Perring 401 Bunnikins sort of book, I've had a quick look through most of the 401 series, without success.

If anyone can identify the book, please let me know - by email or leave a comment.

Friday, 30 May 2008

New Stuff

On my website I've added quite a few new bits recently, so here's a summary.

John Murray, son of the writer of The Impatient Horse sent me some background to the writing of the story - which has become perhaps the most sought-after Ladybird Book of all.

I've added a page of 'Videos' featuring Ladybird Books. Let me know if you think there's a Ladybird video out there that should be on the page.

I've also added a Quintura cloud search on the 'Fun Stuff' page. Helps to while away a moment or two.

There's probably some more stuff but I can't think what right now. I'm just off to do a 'sun dance' (see Ladybird Books: "Learnabout - Things to do during rainy Half-Term Holidays". I need good weather because I plan to take a few crate loads of Less-Loved-Tales to get rid of at the St Albans car-boot sale tomorrow.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Well it works for me!

What a beautiful sight!

These are two pieces of original Ladybird artwork which I acquired recently.

I've picked up lots of different pieces over the years, but none has ever quite hit the Ladybird spot the way these two do. One is a Peter and Jane classic from the 1960s book 2a, We Have Fun and the other is the cover illustration for the 1970s version of 'Boys and Girls'.

Somehow - the colours and the detail and the memories - they cheer me up every time I turn round from my computer and look at them. Pure escapism. In a week of worldwide disaster and tragedy, of talk of recession and of 'toxic childhood' it's very comforting to escape briefly into the illusion that is Ladybird Land.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Car Boot Season

The fine weather cometh and what does that mean?

Car boot sale season is upon us again.

Last year was a bit of a wash out - too much rain, too many muddy fields, too few boot sales so I've got pent-up treasure-hunt energy and am particularly looking forward to this year.

It's a bit of a triumph of hope over experience; the fact is that you almost never find anything special at car boot sales these days. Gone are the (albeit rare) days when you would come across a box of pristine matt books - fresh from their time-warp. Gone are the days of turning over a dust-jacketed copy of 'The Party', 'In the Country' or 'A Little Silk Apron' in a box filled with bits of curtain pelmet and sewing patterns. I was spectacularly lucky when acquiring the 6 books in the original Tasseltip series - 474. I found all of them, one after the other, in car boot sales or neglected in bookshops and never paid more than £5.00.

Now people know that Ladybird Books are collectable. My local charity shop has 3 rather scruffy 'Words for Numbers' books in the window, priced at an optimistic £5.00 each. So the chances of coming across that Benny Smith haul are frankly not great. But hey ho!

Monday, 21 April 2008

Memories of Ladybird

Ladybird nostaligia - variations on a theme.

Hope you enjoy it:

Sunday, 6 April 2008

More on Ladybird Prints ...

I am pleased to say that the company offering the Ladybird Prints has agreed with my comment below about the fact that the artists should be credited on the website. They got in touch to acknowledge the point (as did Jo from Ladybird) and now the artists are cited. So now you can browse away with a clear conscience :-D

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

A new dawn

Martin Aitchison has just released another 9 pieces of original 1970s Peter and Jane artwork for sale on his website. You can see them here:
There are some really great one there.

Also I have made a small clip about the earliest ever Ladybird Books (that is, the earliest books from the 401 series when Ladybird began to publish pocket-sized books). You can find it on the 'Gallery page'.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Ladybird prints

I see that Ladybird have now started to sell prints of their artwork archive:

Ladybird prints

There are hours of fun to be had here, browsing through some wonderful prints. I think I would have spent quite a lot of money here once upon a time, before I developed an expensive taste for the original artwork.

One thing strikes me as strange, though. I notice that the artists aren't credited on the site. The author of a given book is credited even though the text is not reproduced, but not the artist!   Hardly seems fair.

Also, I wonder what they mean when they state that the artwork comes from the 'Ladybird Archive'. I assumed at first that this must be a physical collection of artwork which Ladybird (Penguin) hold - as I know they do. But the fact is that there are prints on this site, the original artwork for which resides in my living-room, so that can't be right.

Anyway, have fun browsing.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Impatient Horse

Last week the BBC forwarded on to me a letter from the son of George Murray, author of probably the rarest Ladybird Book for collectors: The Impatient Horse. It was a lovely letter and in it he mentioned the origins of the story:

"In those days United Dairies, who had a depot at Esher, delivered milk in horse-drawn vans. Our milkman was called Old Harry and my mother, who had a kind heart, used to offer him a cup of tea which he would drink in the kitchen of our suburban house. The horse would, of course, have to wait for him and after a few minutes he would get fed up and would try to come into the gate, pulling his cart right across the pavement"

Apparently Murray wrote another book for Ladybird in the same style: "The Fairy Fair". But for some reason the IH did not sell well, the series was discontinued and The Fairy Fair, presumably, was lost to the world.

But at least The Impatient Horse's short life-span has ensured that today it is loved and prized by Ladybods.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Fickle fame

It was great fun being famous for a whole day or two! My son enjoyed being treated as a celebrity for about the same time. But I'm afraid my 15 minutes of fame seem to have worn off. On Monday lots of people wanted to talk to me. On Tuesday I was stopped in the street by a total stranger. Wednesday, nothing. By Thursday I felt like going up to people and saying - Don't you know who I AM?

Tomorrow I'm dragging long-suffering husband and son half-way across the country to buy another huge hoard of Ladybird Books. I have no idea what will be in the collection - probably nothing very special but I shall thoroughly enjoy sifting through them looking for upgrades or anything different to add to the collection. What to do with the ones I then don't want, I really don't know. It's not as if there's any storage space left in our small house which hasn't already been colonised by LBs. But that's the problem for another day.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Hooray for the Antiques Roadshow!

We got a letter today from the BBC saying that there is to be a second programme made from the footage of the Modern Collectables edition of the Antiques Roadshow, filmed in the summer and that our clip is to be featured! This might only mean a 20 second snippet or the whole of it - I don't know. But my son is delighted!

So finally, dear reader, our moment in the sun (and the wind and the rain) at Bexhill on Sea is to be shared with the nation on Sunday 17th of February.

The joy of Sussex!

Monday, 28 January 2008

Cinderella has a ball in charity shop

Once upon a time ... it was possible to walk into a secondhand bookshop and come across rows of lovely matt, 1960s Ladybird Books priced at 50p each. This was quite a few years ago, when I had just started collecting.

Now it's pretty rare to come across a shelf-full anywhere at any price. But some charity shops are more enlightened in Ladybird Lore than others and know not to throw out matt cover gems just because they aren't in perfect condition or with a wipe-clean surface.

The shop in the picture is 'Oxfam Books and Music' in West Market Place, Cirencester in the Cotswolds, a stone's throw from the parish church in the centre of town. They have a lot of very good condition early Well-loved Tales for sale as well as good clean copies from other popular series.

Not at 50p each of course, but it's a good cause.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Frank Hampson

I've just put together a new page in the 'Artists' section on the illustrator Frank Hampson. Frank was one of the small group of artists who, after war time service, worked for The Eagle comic before moving to Ladybird in the 1960s.

But before working on this page, I hadn't realised how instrumental Hampson had been in the very creation of The Eagle and how central a role it played in his life as an artist. Hampson is best known for Dan Dare - the character he created from the very birth of The Eagle. By comparison, Hampson's work for Ladybird was less all-consuming - perhaps a way to pay the bills when he felt forced to leave The Eagle. But the artistic freedom he had enjoyed producing comic-strips led him to take a very unusual approach to some of the more 'mundane' topics he illustrated for Ladybird. He often illustrated scenes from a very unexpected perspective - giving his books a rather surreal appeal.

The most creative Ladybird commission he got was to illustrate the three 1960s Nursery Rhymes books. Hampson's unconventional approach either appealled strongly to children - or rather scared them. I was in the latter camp, personally - but lots of people seem to recall these books with great affection and they are getting harder and harder to find now.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

And the winner is ...

It will come as no surprise to long-standing LB book collectors to hear that this year Nicole (from Australia) was the first to crack the Christmas quiz. (Answers from two other continents followed swiftly behind hers). But Nicole wins back her tinsel crown for another year.

The answers were:

Christmas Carol: Memory
Our Land ...: Anglo-Saxon
Weather: Rainfall
Mick: Lucky
Musical Instruments: Eighteenth
Toys and Games: Yacht
Downy: Splash

Beauty & Beast: Gift
Great Inventions: Hall
Raleigh: Overseas
Numbers: Sweets
The Party: Trousers

The hidden character was therefore ... Marley's Ghost.

Happy New Year